On Thursday, Microsoft lost a major patent-infringement case in the U.S. Supreme Court, which left standing the largest patent award ever upheld on appeal -- a fine of $290 million. The case could have established a new threshold of evidence required to overturn a patent.At issue is patent 5,787,449 from Michel Vulpe and Stephen Owens, i4i. Here's the abstract:
In 2007, a small Canadian company called i4i filed suit against the software Relevant Products/Services giant, alleging patent infringement in Word 2003 and 2007 because of a tool that enabled document manipulation. A 2009 decision by a U.S. District Court in Texas ruled in favor of i4i, and Microsoft was forced to drop the XML feature in order to continue selling Word while it appealed.
After the verdict, Microsoft said that, while the "outcome is not what we had hoped for," the company will continue to press for changes in patent law to "prevent abuse of the patent system."
This issue goes to the heart of patent suits and defenses, and both i4i and Microsoft had a variety of heavyweights filing amicus briefs in their support Relevant Products/Services. One of i4i's was the PTO, which said that "because the practical effect of a successful challenge to the validity of a patent is to overturn the PTO's administrative decision, the United States has a substantial interest in the question presented."
A system and method for the separate manipulation of the architecture and content of a document, particularly for data representation and transformations. The system, for use by computer software developers, removes dependency on document encoding technology. A map of metacodes found in the document is produced and provided and stored separately from the document. The map indicates the location and addresses of metacodes in the document. The system allows of multiple views of the same content, the ability to work solely on structure and solely on content, storage efficiency of multiple versions and efficiency of operation.Do you recognize that? It's written very broadly, but this patent describes an XML document.
Reading further into the patent, they provide a history of document mark-up codes. One of the first mark-up systems was TROFF (mentioned in the patent) that used special "dot commands" to control the output, followed by more complex word-processing systems such as WordStar (also mentioned) and other programs that embed "command codes" within the document. One command code might indicate bold text, and another might indicate italic text. The patent then goes on to describe SGML, a larger version of the XML markup language.
And so their invention seems to be just an XML-based content, and a separate "map" of command codes. So in the "map" you might list the code for bold text, and a reference to every place in the document that uses bold.
Unfortunately, the courts found themselves reading the legal definition of this patent, and had to determine if Microsoft had indeed violated the patent. Seems like the courts didn't get to decide if this patent should have been awarded due to the method being "obvious" to others in the technology industry.
There's more discussion at Groklaw.
Again, this is an example of why we need "software" patent reform, and why we need a change such as citizen review to help provide input early in the review process to whether a method is "obvious" to someone working in that field, or if it's truly patentable. I believe a change like this could significantly reduce the Bad Patents that get awarded.